Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - As many await Senate action on a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) continued to push for an alternative option: pluripotent stem cells created without destroying human embryos.

At a briefing held Thursday at the Capitol, he extolled the virtues of the so-called embryonic-like stem cells and spoke of the common ground the bill has with more divisive proposals related to embryonic stem cells.

"I think we have an opportunity to present some ideas in an area where there has been a lot of heat, a lot of concern here in the United States, and a lot of division," Santorum said, later adding his ambitions for moving forward "in a way that is both moral and ethical, as well as producing optimistic horizons from the scientific research perspective."

He is the sponsor of legislation supporting such research, the Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act, which was introduced last month. Labeled S. 2754, it would amend the Public Health Service Act to require the National Institutes of Health to conduct and support research to develop techniques for the isolation, derivation, production or testing of stem cells that have pluripotent or embryonic-like qualities. The bill authorizes funding for three years, beginning in the coming fiscal year.

While the research generally is viewed as fairly non-controversial, the proposed measure is a bit more charged, given that it could thwart other efforts to broaden government backing for the more controversial embryonic stem cells. In contrast, the Santorum measure specifically is written against being construed to affect any policy, guideline or regulation regarding embryonic stem cell research, human cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer, or any other research not specifically authorized.

A notable ally on S. 2754 is Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who also has fought for new federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He is a sponsor of S. 471, a companion bill to the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810) that cleared the House more than a year ago but still awaits a vote in the Senate. A month ago, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that vote could come this month on those bills, which would permit federal money for stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization clinics' excess embryos.

Santorum said that debate has yet to be scheduled, but noted that it would include S. 471 as well as alternatives that would "very importantly" be acceptable at the White House. President Bush has said he would veto any measure supporting embryonic stem cells.

Santorum has called his bill a "significant compromise," and Specter has noted that his backing does not signal his abandonment of those other legislative efforts. S. 2754 relates to techniques outlined by the president's Council on Bioethics last year, including variations on altered nuclear transfer, reprogramming of differentiated somatic cells and other techniques used to isolate these pluripotent cells.

Santorum said that, by following recommendations from the president's bioethics panel, "we have come up with some language that can accelerate and focus research on areas that are both very promising from a scientific point of view, as well as acceptable from a moral and ethical point of view."

The bill has been referred to the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Last week, a related measure was introduced in the House by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) labeled H.R. 5526. It follows a similar measure introduced last year, H.R. 3144.

Beyond the debate over federal funding restrictions, Harvard University recently unveiled a privately funded program for embryonic stem cells, sidestepping the restrictions on federal funding.

Biofuels Get Boost From BP

The energy giant BP this week disclosed plans to spend $500 million over the next 10 years to establish a research facility dedicated solely to bioscience energy. Among its goals: to develop new technologies for converting organic matter to biofuel and using modern plant science to develop species that produce a higher yield of energy molecules and can be grown on land not suitable for food production. The envisioned BP Energy Biosciences Institute, which is to be attached to an academic center in the U.S. or UK, is expected to launch early research programs by the end of next year.

BP, which generally is regarded as forward-looking, is one of the newest members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Washington trade association that is especially vocal in calling for federal investments into the development of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. In recent months, BIO has worked to attract other traditional energy companies such as Chevron, which this week pledged to contribute up to $12 million over five years to the Georgia Institute of Technology for research into the production of transportation fuels from renewable resources such as forest and agricultural waste.

FDA Nomination Still On Hold

Acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach remains stalled, as his nomination to lead the agency remains on hold. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) recently said she would continue the stalemate that was initiated by her and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to protest the FDA's failure to act on an application for over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive product. A recent report on that controversy said former FDA commissioner Lester Crawford acknowledged that the agency had intended to allow such sales, but had delayed its final decision while working on a rule to prohibit the product for anyone younger than 17.

Agency Fights Against Counterfeits

The FDA recently announced new steps to combat counterfeit drugs. Among other things, the agency will require drug distributors to document the chain of custody of drug products, also known as their pedigree, throughout the distribution system. The FDA encouraged the use of electronic track-and-trace technology, such as radio-frequency identification, which creates an electronic pedigree as a further safeguard against counterfeiting. The effort corresponds to other recent safety-related measures announced by the agency, including its planned crackdown on drugs that are often part of products, even though they aren't supported by approvals under current regulatory standards.